(STATS) – New Hampshire is enjoying a late-season push behind improved play on the defensive end, but now the Wildcats are getting an opportunity to see just how far the unit has come in a matchup with one of the nation’s most prolific offenses.
UNH expects to have starting quarterback Trevor Knight back from concussion protocol as it tries to advance to the FCS semifinals for the third time in five years Saturday at high-powered No. 5 seed South Dakota State, which can reach its first final four with a seventh consecutive victory.
UNH (9-4) has cleared Knight’s return. He was knocked out of a second-round win at No. 4 seed Central Arkansas last Saturday, and backup Christian Lupoli had been preparing with the first unit this week as a precaution.
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Though the Wildcats allowed 51 points in a September loss at Holy Cross and 38 in a setback at Stony Brook on Oct. 14, they have since turned things around on the defensive end while winning four of their last five games. They’ve limited opponents to an average of 9 points and 315.5 total yards over the past four contests, including an impressive 14-0 first-round win over Central Connecticut State that marked the program’s first shutout in more than seven years.
UNH then forced four turnovers for the second straight game and added five sacks in the 21-15 upset of Central Arkansas. Defensive tackle Rick Holt and linebackers Quinlen Dean and Jared Kuehl have played key roles in the outstanding postseason effort.
“Our defense is getting better as the year goes on, everybody’s seeing that,” Wildcats coach Sean McDonnell said. “The big thing is, they’re listening to what we’re talking about. It all starts with stopping the run. They’re buying into tackling and our linebackers are making plays. Our defensive front is plugging their gaps and making the ball bounce to the holes. And then we’re opportunistic.”
After halting Elon’s eight-game winning streak, Central Connecticut State’s eight-game run and Central Arkansas’ 10-game march, the Wildcats hope to put an end to the Jackrabbits’ win streak in the first meeting between the programs. They’ll have to stay sharp defensively to make that happen against a SDSU offense that ranks sixth nationally with 37.4 points per game and 15th in total offense with an average of 443.3 yards.
Junior Taryn Christion sits 14th in the FCS with 257.6 passing yards per game and has proven to be a dual-threat with five rushing touchdowns over his last six games. Senior tight end Dallas Goedert ranks 15th in the country with 1,049 receiving yards on 66 catches, while senior wideout Jake Wieneke is tied for fifth nationally with 13 touchdowns.
Christion threw for three touchdowns last Saturday to set a single-season school record with 31, Jacob Brown had his third TD reception in four games and Goedert added six catches for 83 yards and a score in a 37-22 second-round win over Northern Iowa that established a program record at 10 victories.
“We’re at home, we’re a seed and we need to try and play our best football one more week,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said.
UNH is thrilled to welcome back Knight. Lupoli completed 8 of 10 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown in just over two quarters in relief against Central Arkansas. Knight, a redshirt junior, has thrown for 3,197 yards and 25 touchdowns this season.
“Just like with Taryn or our backup, we’re not going to change a lot of stuff (based on who plays quarterback),” Stiegelmeier said. “Maybe a few more runs or a few less deep balls, but you’re really just going to run your offense.”
The Wildcats may lean on Evan Gray a little more after he rushed for 85 yards and added a TD grab against the Bears. They’ll certainly try to get the ball to wideout Neil O’Connor, a STATS FCS Walter Payton Award nominee who ranks third nationally with 93 catches and fourth with 1,358 yards.
SDSU (10-2) hasn’t exactly been dominant defensively, allowing an average of 26.7 points and 389.4 yards over the past seven games. However, the Jackrabbits limited the Panthers to just 82 rushing yards after giving up 297 at South Dakota during the final week of the regular season.
“At this point in the season, everyone’s a good team,” UNH center Jake Kennedy said. “I certainly haven’t been to South Dakota. We showed we can play in uncharted ground. Hopefully, we can repeat that.”